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    In the rabbit hole
a monthly column by A.C.E. Bauer

March 2006
A love story

Every four or five years, I pick up Dorothy L. Sayers’
Gaudy Night. Each time, I face a moment of trepidation. What if the book disappoints me? Maybe, finally, Lord Peter Wimsey will be tiresome, or Sayers’ class-centered view of England between the wars, boring, or the mystery will be slight, the characters simple, the world of her fictional Oxford college for women just too catty.

Never fear. John Donne and Sir Philip Sidney entice me at the outset, and a 21-line block of text—the first paragraph—convinces me that I don’t want to leave. This is a novel about Harriet Vane, an intelligent, self-reliant woman, with honest conflicting emotions and a dose of common sense, who has a burning desire to spend time in the academic world.

We are led into her life through the Shrewsbury College Gaudy—a reunion and dinner for alumnae. But someone at this Oxford college is sending poison-pen letters to students and dons, playing cruel pranks and causing vandalism. The Dean, getting desperate, asks Harriet Vane to help ferret out the prankster while using utmost discretion. The women of the Senior Common Room—the tutors, fellows, Dean, Bursar—are prime suspects and they soon find themselves under Ms. Vane’s magnifying glass and each other’s. The disturbances don’t let up. Suspects multiply. Then a student attempts suicide after being subjected to an onslaught of vicious accusations. At this point, some three fifths of the way through the book, the College relents and allows Harriet to call upon an outsider for help—Lord Peter Wimsey.

Along the way we have explored Oxford, the university and system, its mores and traditions. We have examined the status of women, the promises of youth, the changes wrought by time, the roles women are called upon to play or forced into. And we have, without a doubt, followed a writer’s debate about what makes a good novel.

Harriet Vane, like Dorothy L. Sayers, committed a serious indiscretion as a young woman—in Harriet’s case it led to the accusation of murder; in Sayers’ case to an illegitimate child. With nothing to her name but opprobrium, Harriet took her greatest skill—writing—and, like Sayers, put it to the market creating detective novels, and garnered a great deal of success. Toward the beginning of
Gaudy Night, we find her proofing several of her older books for new editions.
The re-reading of one’s own works is usually a dismal matter, and when she had completed her task she felt thoroughly jaded and displeased with herself. The books were all right, as far as they went; as intellectual exercises, they were even brilliant. But there was something lacking about them; they read now to her as though they had been written with a mental reservation, a determination to keep her own opinions and personality out of view.                                                                   (p.66)
Harriet begins writing a new novel and brings it with her to Shrewsbury, to work on while she quietly investigates the harassment being inflicted on the College. But halfway through her work, she is stuck—she’s written a lovely plot, an intriguing setting, but . . . the story sounds dead to her. After worrying it for a while, she tells Peter about it. He suggests that one of her main characters, Wilfrid, needs beefing up.

“. . . But if I give Wilfrid all those violent and lifelike feelings, he’ll throw the whole book out of balance.”
“You would have to abandon the jigsaw kind of story and write a book about human beings for a change.”
“I’m afraid to do that, Peter. It might go too near to the bone.”
“It might be the wisest thing you could do.”
“Write it out and be rid of it?”
“I’ll think about that. It would hurt like hell.”
“What would that matter, if it made a good book?”                                               (pp. 332-333)

Harriet, true to her word rewrites Wilfred’s character. She makes him real and discovers, to her dismay, that her whole book is now unbalanced.

Wilfrid’s tormented humanity stood out now against the competent vacuity of the other characters like a wound. Moreover, with the reduction of Wilfrid’s motives to what was psychologically credible, a large lump of the plot had fallen out, leaving a gap through which one could catch glimpses of new and exciting jungles of intrigue.                (p. 409)

She is forced to write a good book. And thus in the course of
Gaudy Night, she has followed Sayers’ path—moving from plot-driven caricatures to character-driven plots. Sayers had wanted Gaudy Night to be her last detective novel, and she expressed her intent through Harriet’s struggles, both literary and personal. Financially secure, Sayers could now, like Harriet, devote herself to what mattered to her most: academic studies, translations, a world of intellect and debate. Harriet exposes all of Sayers’ ambitions and fears—what it meant to be a woman, a writer and an academic at the core, while trying to make your way in a world that viewed women as beholden to men. To bring this all into relief, she gave Harriet a foil, Lord Peter Wimsey, the person she is both literally beholden to and to whom she does not wish to owe anything.

Which brings me to why I love this book most of all. The book is, fundamentally, from beginning to end, a love story. Harriet has gathered all the clues, but she is unable to unravel the cause for the disturbances. The simple reason is, of course, that as an advertised “Lord Peter Wimsey book”, Sayers had to make him solve the mystery. But she created another plausible reason for the reader: as Peter puts it, “something got between you and the facts,” and that “thing” is Harriet’s ambivalence about him.

Lord Peter Wimsey, Sayers’ creation since
Whose Body?, is the second son of a Duke, with wealth, intelligence, quick wit and time on his hands, who takes up detection as a hobby. Slim, blond, grey-eyed and monocled, he embodies the debonair entre-guerres bachelor portrayed by the likes of Fred Astaire. Over fifteen years, Sayers imbued him with life, breadth, fears and even a self-deprecating ambition. In Strong Poison he saves Harriet Vane from the gallows: she is wrongly accused in the murder of her live-in lover. Peter falls in love with her and proposes to her. Appalled, she turns him down, and for the next five years, with a certain regularity, Peter proposes again and again, only to be met by rebuke. But as Gaudy Night chronicles, both Harriet and Peter change as the refusals pile up.

Harriet grows from a dismal self-loathing to someone confident in her intellect and self-worth, while Peter realizes the selfishness of his proposals and slowly strips away the artifice in his dealings with Harriet. By the time we see them together for the first time in
Gaudy Night, their relationship has moved from wariness to a level of trust. Harriet relies on Peter’s consistency and intelligence, and Peter on her down-to-earth honesty. Peter’s visit at the beginning of the novel is brief. He disappears from the scene, although not from Harriet’s mind, until well nigh three fifths of the way through. And when he reappears, Sayers grants us a most remarkable moment in detective fiction. She spends almost two chapters, some 25 pages, describing a respite, a “holiday” they take on Oxford’s rivers. In those crucial 25 pages we witness a sea-change of emotions, minutely described, breathtaking in their effect. This holiday is the fulcrum of the novel—the point where all stands still and where everything is held in balance. It is also one of the most beautiful pieces of romantic writing I have read in some 35+ years of reading novels.

Peter disappears again, retaking the scene briefly here and there (though now at more frequent intervals) until we reach the necessary gathering of the suspects and unraveling of all the clues. But while the mystery marches on to its climactic conclusion, Sayers never lets go of the reins. She lays bare the status of women, the writer’s lot, the mores of Oxford. And most important of all, she tells the love story, all the way through. As readers, we require a reckoning, and holding nothing back as a writer, Sayers supplies it.

All the books I return to are, at their center, love stories. From Elizabeth Bennett sparring with Fitzwilliam Darcy, to Kim’s devotion to the lama and the lama’s to Kim, love is the emotion that rivets me to the book. Engaging the heart jump-starts the mind. I read more carefully, pleasure infusing the effort because as the pages turn, I am rewarded emotionally as well as intellectually. I am also given the truest measure of the author. To evoke that kind of emotion, in all its complexities, and make it honest, the author must give something of him or herself—a piece cut to the bone. I am always honored by the trust that is given to me, as reader, and in the author’s generosity—a generosity found in the best books and the best stories on my shelves.

All quotations are from
Gaudy Night by Dorothy L. Sayers; copyright © 1936 by Dorothy Leigh Sayers Fleming; copyright renewed © 1964 by Anthony Fleming; HarperPaperbacks edition, 1995.



A.C.E. Bauer has been telling and writing stories since childhood. She took a short break to write dreadful poetry in college, and then a longer one while she worked as an attorney, writing legal briefs and telling stories about her clients. She has returned to fiction, and now writes children's books and short stories for all ages. She was a finalist for the Tassy Walden Award: New Voices in Children's Literature in both 2001 and 2002.

One of her stories has appeared in Ladybug magazine, and a middle-grade, magical-realism novel is scheduled for publication in autumn 2007. Born and raised in Montreal, she spends most of the year in New England with her family, and much of the summer on a lake in Quebec.

In the Rabbit Hole began in December 2005
Breathing water and pine
"It's just a children's book"
Reconciling to the Impossible
Write to A.C.E. Bauer at
acebauer at gmail dot com

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"A love story" copyright © March 2006 by A.C.E. Bauer.
This essay appears here with thanks to A.C.E. Bauer, whose payment was less than a brass razoo.
This is part of a series of invited pieces by people I find deliciously inspiring, always a hoot, and who write like a bletted medlar tastes. A.T.
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